Great Escapes

Communities try to cope with toxic releases

Last August 28, an orange cloud of toxic trimethylacetyl chloride escaped from the Hoyer chemical plant in Bayport and drifted into nearby communities. The accident occurred at 7:10 a.m., the beginning of the school day. Neither Clear Creek nor La Porte school district was immediately notified. La Porte school officials ordered a shelter-in-place (windows and doors sealed, air conditioning shut off) only after hearing of the release from news reports.

The cloud slowly spread to Seabrook and El Jardin where Charlotte Cherry's daughter was beginning her day at Bay Elementary. Hoyer officials pronounced the all-clear before 9 a.m., so she and other children took to the playground in mid-morning. Only when they began complaining of sore throats and nausea did teachers bring them indoors. "They claimed that it was over," Cherry says, "but they didn't come and test our neighborhood."

The cloud sent 130 people to area hospitals with breathing problems, chest pains, throat and eye irritations and nausea.

Brushes with disaster highlight a fact of life for residents who live near chemical plants and refineries: Potential exposure to nasty fumes is never more than a stuck valve or ruptured pipe away, and emergency warning procedures, no matter how carefully choreographed, can still go awry. "Despite everyone's good intentions and planning, everything went wrong with the Hoyer incident," Cherry says.

That emergency was the latest in a series of accidents and releases over a three-month period that left area residents feeling besieged. On June 13, a tank of methyl acrylate overheated at the Hoechst Celanese plant on Port Road, causing a release of the sweet-smelling but poisonous chemical. An evacuation was contemplated, but those responsible for ordering it decided the incident was under control. No warning sirens or broadcasts notified residents of the problem.

Pasadena did contact the board of the El Jardin Community Association, which convened an emergency session. After consulting with the Celanese plant manager, the group decided to go ahead with the annual association meeting slated for the following day. At the meeting, residents finally learned of the release, though by then many had already been exposed. "Later we found out [holding the meeting] probably wasn't such a great idea," says El Jardin resident Ruth Lang, whose nose blistered after she inhaled the chemical.

Other incidents followed in seemingly quick succession. On June 21, an explosion at the Eisei plant in Bayport injured two workers. Three days later, a fire at Exxon's Clear Lake gas plant blew clouds of black smoke into the air and resulted in a shelter-in-place warning. In a much-publicized incident, an 18-wheeler carrying methyl acrylate tried to turn around in the parking lot of a convenience store at the entrance to El Jardin and fell in a ditch. Police barricaded both entrances to the community, leaving residents such as Kelly Reed unable to enter and evacuate her two children.

An infrequent release or explosion may be part of the package for area residents, but the concentration has left residents gasping. "It's been incident after incident after incident," says Cherry.

And Cherry is only referring to the big ones. Minor releases of such chemicals as benzene and sulfur dioxide are commonplace. Getting plants to admit responsibility for these less dramatic but equally irritating releases can be an exercise in futility, because the gases disperse quickly, and denial is the norm. A review of odor complaints compiled by the Seashore Community Advisory Panel for the first eight months of 1998 found 30 separate calls to the group -- only three of which could be traced to a particular source. "We smell a lot of stuff out here," says El Jardin resident Michelle Martinez. "The plants have problems, but they won't fess up to them."

Even when disavowal is impossible, the plants are quick to disclaim the impact. In the Celanese case, for example, the company told Seabrook and El Jardin residents that the prevailing winds pushed the odors north to Shoreacres, not in their direction. "They denied that it affected us," Cherry says.Against this backdrop, Cherry and other opponents of American Acryl say the prospect of hosting yet another plant, no matter how well intentioned, is intolerable. "For us," she says, "it's the straw that breaks the camel's back."

-- Bob Burtman

 
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